Blue Skies, Dark Clouds

Walking east past the apartments, on my way to the library, I relished the day: low 70s, a brilliant blue sky, scudding white clouds. When I’d seen the mountains that morning, the high country gleamed with bright first snow, an autumn sight that always thrills me. A black woman sat on the apartment steps, red streaks in her hair. We smiled at each other as I passed.

“Beautiful day,” she said.

Past her already, I turned to agree.

There to the west, the entire Front Range had disappeared, smothered by an impressively dark blue-gray cloud, looming our way.

“Yes,” I replied, “but looks like it could change.”

She glanced in the direction of my nod. “Beautiful day,” she repeated, grinning, “so long as we don’t look behind us.”

It was the first of October. I was glad to leave September behind me.

Half an hour after that conversation, clouds had eaten the sun, and swallowed the last bit of blue sky. The wind picked up. Back from the library, I turned on lights. The bright house I left had become gloomy and chilled. Snow above 9,000 feet, rain down here in the city, where trees are still in green leaf.

Bad news comes in flurries. In a recent post, I said everything happens at once. But that was about being too busy. In the month of September we suffered the sudden death of a friend, hit by a car while riding her bike. Diagnoses of cancer in two more. Worsening diabetes in a fourth, COPD in another. Two other friends endure serious consequences of falls: broken shoulder, shattered ribs. A young man, my student years ago, committed suicide.

Yet, at times like this the generosity of the human race is revealed. Friends and family bring plates and pots of food to the bereaved, make sure he is not alone unless he wants to be. They come to hug, hold hands, tell stories and cry together.

At times like this the courage of the human race is revealed. A friend enters palliative care, chooses to announce that decision, urges us to recognize the importance of planning our deaths, sets an example for us.

At the scene of the accident, people stopped, called 911. Though she was just passing and could have kept going, a nurse ran to help our friend, unconscious on the street. Afterwards strangers left flowers at the intersection. Such acts as these let me focus on the bright day instead of the storm clouds that eventually touch us all. As my neighbor said, where you look is a choice.

Read this as a prayer, for those we’ve just lost and those we may soon lose, for those beginning or continuing difficult medical journeys and those who could not continue living and those beginning to learn how to live without the beloved, taken so soon. This is a prayer to whatever name you give to higher being, for I know there are several such names among you, and a prayer in any name is a blessing.

Early Sunday morning, October 5. Transparent skies, trees hold their breath, the faintest dip of a leaf. Phil made banana pecan pancakes and afterwards we take our coffee to the front porch to watch the 15K go by. First come the serious runners, with their long, easy strides. Later, slow joggers, fast walkers, some of whom seem to be in pain. But they keep going. The morning is hushed. From the porch I hear soft footfalls of neon running shoes and, sometimes, panting breath. The race, as always, is a fundraiser, this one for the Ronald McDonald House. By the time I’ve done the dishes, stragglers struggle up the block, looking anxiously at their watches. It has taken more than an hour for the last runners to trickle past. Generations younger than me, these hundreds spend Sunday doing good for themselves and our world, jogging past with no idea how they give me hope. Read this as a prayer for them too, of thanks and praise.



Posted in Neighborhood, Uncategorized | 3 Comments



How this came to pass, I don’t know, but whenever there’s any kind of “event” in our relationship—in the medical sense of the word, as in “he had a heart event”—I get to do the recap. In this marriage, I’m in charge of summing up.

“So,” I say, having finished my husband’s famously delicious Sunday French toast,“that was an amazing breakfast. I enjoyed it immensely and it wasn’t a bit spoiled by the brief set-to between the chef and his helper in the preparation stage.”

By the way Phil looks up blankly from the newspaper article he’s reading, I can tell he has no idea what I’ve just said. Either that or he’s entirely forgotten the “event.” This is a common occurrence with him. But not me. I never forget “events.” I mull them over and figure out how I can turn them into material.

I can’t blame Phil for not listening to me just now. He was reading the Denver Post article on our friend Joe Hutchison, who’s just been named Colorado’s Poet Laureate. No one more deserving. I recall doing readings with Joe back in the day, always loving his poems. I recall a poetry workshop he taught for my DSA writing students: what intelligent, insightful work he did, and how the kids raved about him afterwards. And he’s published as many books of poems as I have—if I had published thirteen more than the two I did publish.

Besides knowing Joe, Phil also knows the reporter who wrote the story. They’re often on neighboring exercise bikes at the gym. We also regularly see bylines by the parents of two of my former students. It’s getting to be a small world, the world of those who know how to put sentences together to appear in print.

I turn another page and see a photo of Chris Wineman, architect extraordinaire. “We know everyone in the paper this morning,” I say airily. Phil continues trying to read. That’s another of his irritating attributes: he doesn’t drop what he’s reading when I interrupt him.

“Did you get to the part where it says Joe has a tousled mane of gray hair?” I inquire.

“Well, come on,” Phil jumps to the journalist’s defense. “You don’t have time to develop original character descriptions when you’re on deadline.”

I suppose not. Still, that mane of hair cliché needs to be retired. It always makes me think of people as horses.

The part I really liked about this article is the description of Joe as a middle school student, wandering into the literature section of the library and picking up a book by the 15th century French poet, François Villon.

“He was smitten,” William Porter writes, “and his path was set.” There’s the magic. There’s the mystery. The way someone born an artist, though nothing in his background predicts such a calling, will blindly but unerringly find his way to the passion of his life.

Good job, Porter.

Meanwhile, back at the breakfast table, on the subject of our little “event,” Phil has not heard me, obviously, and these recaps are essential to the health of the marriage. “I said, the French toast was perfect, as always, and not spoiled by your yelling at the chef’s assistant.” Third person can be usefully deflective.

This time he hears me.

“The chef’s assistant needs to make the coffee and let the chef make the French toast,” he reminds me, somewhat huffily.

“I was just trying to point out that you had a good deal of smoke coming off that grill and your flame was probably too—”

Phil glares at me and I know I’m on thin ice. He makes the best French toast in town and always does so with a high flame. I’ve probably said something to him about it before. Well, O.K., maybe I’ve said it, in varying tones of alarm, seven or eight times before. This year.

Mostly, he simply asks if I wish to have Sunday breakfast made for me or not. Which tends to shut me up. Anyway, this could have been the ninth time in 2014 I’ve said something about the smoke and all. Which was when the yelling “event” happened. I was told—quite loudly—to stop interfering with the chef.

While raising one’s voice is not encouraged in this relationship, it sometimes can be understood.

“Thin ice” is a bit of cliché, isn’t it? Bother: I’m on deadline.

And the thing is, he had that flame too damn high.



Posted in Humor | 6 Comments

Conspiracy Theories

I’m tired of the universe conspiring against me. I don’t mean the “you’re born so you can learn a few things, grow old and die” bit: that whole plan doesn’t bother me. I get it. In theory. Theory and reality are two different things, as you know. Probably, the minute I find out I’m dying, I’ll exclaim, “WHAT?”

But that’s not the conspiracy I’m tired of. I’m tired of EVERYTHING HAPPENING AT ONCE!

Sorry to yell like that. I’m back under control now.

Let me explain. I’m rambling along the unremarkable road of my retirement, doing a little of this, a little of that. I’ve knocked the weather-beaten boards of my days into a serviceable routine: writing in the morning, house and yard afternoon, coffee dates, gym three times a week. But after four years, I’m just a trifle restless. Not to mention, running low on the funds needed to gambol about the world.

So in May, a former colleague asks if I’d like to teach one class in the fall. One class! A teacher’s dream, the dream all those teacher movies pretend is reality: one class. Twenty-five or thirty kids instead of 170. I peer down the unremarkable road of my retirement, where August lies in distant, empty haze. Nothing. It’s like the surface of the moon down there. I sign up.

An infectious disease doctor explained this to me once. Nasty germs sneak into your body all kinds of ways—impossible to stop them—and head straight for whatever part of you is compromised. “Ah-ha!” says one virus to another, “check it out, the lungs are weak, dude. Let’s crash there and start a cozy colony of bronchitis.”

Activity is like that too. You take a barren landscape section of your life and drop a modest activity into it, like, say, teaching one class. Just a pebble in the pond. You do it on tiptoe, don’t tell anyone, keep your head down.

Doesn’t matter.

The universe’s activity monster, which had been sound asleep, raises its slimy reptilian head. August? Starting a class? All right, then, let’s host an all-day seminar at the house the week before, have a reunion reading of Denver Crossroads poets the night after meeting all twenty-seven parents of your new students, throw in a dental emergency which takes three appointments to fix, have an essay on deadline for publication come back with 42 proposed edits and a note asking, “can you have this Tuesday?” (Here’s another problem with the internet: editors can send work Sunday afternoon and want it back Tuesday.)

But we’re not done: develop a leak in the basement, find a plumber, spend a lot of money, get appointed to a neighborhood committee and sign a contract to translate a 300-page book, all in August, right as I start teaching.

The translation job should be good news and it is. Since retirement I’ve been working at becoming a translator. But this translation job begins—of course—the last week of August. Oh, and when does my one sweet class end? December 19. The translation job is due December 5.

Maybe instead of the biological infection theory, it’s some insidious law of physics. Activity attracts more activity, commitments made in an empty field find other commitments snagging their legs like burrs, hovering overhead like stage parents, jumping up and down like four-year-olds, crying, “Me too! Me too!”

With no effort on my part, I go from not-enough to too-much, zero to eighty in thirty seconds, mixing metaphors like crazy. When I wasn’t so busy, I ignored dust bunnies and weeding for weeks without it bothering me a bit. Now I desperately want to attack those tasks this minute, the way I am only desperate to do things when I can’t do them. How could I? I need to knock out four pages of translation and plan tomorrow’s class.

This always happens to me. I know, because I’ve looked at years of old journals—remind me to burn those things—I used to write in daily. It’s there in black and white: everything happens at once.


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One for the Fridge

The fridge was the bulletin board of the American home. From invitations and appointments to the kids’ latest drawings and photos, we put everything there, held with magnets. Mind you, fridges were made of something magnetic then. And photos were actual hard copies. For me, fridge exhibit space and sticky notes came together serendipitously. Someone said something I loved, so I scribbled it onto a sticky and slapped it on the fridge. Eventually there were a dozen or more and people went to the kitchen to read them as soon as they arrived. Friends sometimes made pithy remarks and stared at me expectantly. Rules had to be established. You couldn’t be trying to get on the fridge.

Time passed. The fridge took on a dusty feathered look. I took the stickies down, typed them up. Then I started teaching and began collecting the student quotes that were published here in 2013. (Look them up.) Collecting “fridgeables” came to an end. Some of these are decades old. Some are by friends no longer living and preserving them is bittersweet. Some have multiple quotes, not because everything they say is dazzling, but because I see—or saw them often, or when paper and pen were handy. I submit these as proof that friends and family enrich our lives with laughter and insight.

There are so many interesting things in life, you can hardly get on with it. —Dixon Staples

Memories are not recordings but defenses. —Bob Topp

Speaking of cow words used to describe human behavior in French: The word “bovine” isn’t used nearly enough in English. —Marilyn Auer

On watching the splintering stick her two-year-old son was playing with: That’s the problem with natural matter: it breaks down. —Snow Ford

I’m tired of this Walmart mentality. —Phil Normand

There’s so much of my life that I wasn’t present for. —Sid Werntz

Speculating on why he’s two weeks behind schedule: Sometimes time isn’t as long as I think it’s going to be. —Mark Jameson

Snow Ford, talking about what she’s learned from her marriage: You can only control yourself.

Sable Rall, hearing the above quote: And sometimes, not even that.

I’m just another Mexican, crying in the wilderness. —Carlos Martinez

If this job gets to me, I’ll quit. My needs aren’t that elaborate. —Toni Potter

On being asked to try a new restaurant: I never go any place I haven’t already been. —Brad Mudge

Discussing his failure to cook while his wife was away: I used to get disgusted by guys like me. —Danny Salazar

I’d rather have a working man than a cooking man. —Cindi Threet

If you know how to make oatmeal cookies, I’ll follow you home. —John Jones

Hablo porque tengo boca. I talk because I have a mouth. —Carlos May-Gamboa

On being asked to meet for a movie on the spur of the moment: We’re too old to be spontaneous. —Jeffrey Ruben-Dorsky

On the rising cost of visiting Prague: I hate it when countries come out of the third world. —Donna Altieri

Anything that eats can be trained. —Rose Reasoner

You can’t raise birds unless you’re a bird yourself. —Minor Meany

On cats: You can have their reproductive capacity fixed, but not their attitudes. —Bob Jaeger

If you want to get the show done, rent the hall. —Angel Vigil

The world is full of people who go faster than I do. —Richard Slavich

Sincerity is not a measure of art. —Phil Normand

In reference to the average American work week: The hunter-gatherers had it better than us. —Len Surprenant

It’s clear we are all fools. —Dixon Staples

I like people who’ve had complex lives: you have to have a few bumps to be interesting. —Toni Potter

On being asked to define mensch: Mensch! Nobody’s a mensch; most people are schmucks. —Alice Rybak

The thing about cell phones is you never have to be where you are. —Marilyn Auer

On being told that his intelligence restored an adult’s faith in the younger generation: Alas, I’m not representative of my generation. —Shane Ford

I’m not much of a creator, but I’m a great continuer. —Bill Gibson

On spending an hour programming his ipad to operate the TV: It’s a good thing I don’t have anything else serious to do besides trying to keep up with the fucking twenty-first century. —Phil Normand

A genuine liberal arts education is not in the best interests of the republic. —Rick VanDeWeghe

The only youth-related issue Americans care about is abortion: we don’t like live children at all. —Toni Potter

I wouldn’t go to church either if I weren’t the minister of one. —Rev. Karl Kopp

I don’t have any particular need to deal with reality. —Carlos Martinez

We haven’t planned our lives because we’ve been innately suspicious of the idea that there’s anywhere to get to. —Phil Normand

On why she spends so much of her retirement in volunteer work: The worst thing I can do is nothing. —Cat Haskins


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